The False Promises of Violence

Billy Bob Thornton won an Academy Award this year for writing the screen adaptation of Sling Blade, a movie he directed and in which he played the leading role. Sling Blade provides an opportunity to identify what one scholar calls "redemptive violence," which is portrayed in much Hollywood fare and is a worldview deeply ingrained in our common life.

The Story

Set in a small town in Arkansas, Sling Blade invites us into the inner lives of people who are gentle and loving, with one notable exception. This would appear to be that "warm-hearted" movie many of us long for, but in fact its warm-heartedness masks a serious and troubling defect.

Karl Childers, the central character, is a slightly retarded man who has been living in a mental institution for the past 25 years after murdering, at age 12, his mother and her lover with a scythe, called here a sling blade. The story begins with his release and re-entry into the life of his former home town.

Karl becomes friends with a boy, Frank, who soon persuades his mother, Linda, to give the stranger a place to live in the family garage. The director of the mental institution finds a job for Karl repairing lawnmowers. Linda is a clerk in a local grocery store where she has a close friendship with the manager, Vaughn, a gay man welcomed at Linda's house as part of the family.

This little town seems almost idyllic. Frank, Linda, and Vaughn, the institution director, and Karl's boss are caring people who are kind to Karl. Not all retarded people or former prisoners are as readily received into a new community.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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